Richard’s face is almost entirely, almost always, a mixture of joy and burden. His eyes are wise and reserved beneath an unwieldy tussle of graying eyebrow. His smile sometimes comes with a coordinated squint and a mild shake of the head—communicating both delight and some deeper thought no matter how small the conversation. Richard often talks about his burden, and the joys he has known as a doctor serving in Africa for over forty years. He is an easy man to sit and listen to, and you cannot help but aspire to share his heart when you do. As a man in his seventies, with a passion such as this, he talks frequently about passing it on.
I have flown from Nairobi with Richard and a team of other doctors to a far-away and troubled land. After a hypnotizing day at thirteen thousand feet, after 800 miles of unrecognizable earth have passed beneath us, we arrive in a country I can’t really write about. We don’t fly here often and there are security concerns.
I park the airplane and for seven days enter a world that Richard seldom leaves. It’s not the dusty, trash-strewn streets that are unfamiliar to me. Not the heat and the culture opposite my own. It’s not even the disheveled government hospital overrun with throngs of ill and sometimes ill-tempered people. No, the world I am reluctant to embrace is the one where infinite need comes face to face with finite solutions, and where one of those faces is that of a suffering child.
Richard’s hands are deft and deliberate. One hand holds a scalpel at the ready while the other massages and maps the twists and turns of a little, crippled foot belonging to a little, beautiful girl who lays in an anesthetized slumber on the operating table. It’s obvious that he knows this “club foot” well. He has known hundreds, maybe thousands, just like it. He prays and then cuts—with practiced skill and deeply—dabs the welling blood, asks for more light, and cuts again. The foot begins to unfold. The medical intern at his side begins to understand. All at once, Richard is doing everything his heart and calling require: taking a burden for crippled children in Africa, finding joy in the pursuit of healing, and impressing these upon a young, promising medical intern.
Like a film run in reverse, he re-assembles the tiny foot. What was crooked an hour ago is now straight. Richard and his student unravel a roll of gauze around the injury and up the child’s leg. They mix plaster in a dented bowl, form a cast, and shape it. His hands reveal a tenderness, shaping the plaster like a potter would clay, as if he’s creating something he will later look on and smile, satisfied with both the form and function of his masterpiece.
The little girl is scooped up and carried off in the arms of her healer, through the double swinging doors which hang unevenly on squeaky hinges, through a dimly lit preparation room smelling of hot linen emerging from an autoclave, into the recovery room and the care of a couple of young nurses. She will wake up shortly in some considerable pain, but once it has faded her life will quickly change, and she will probably grow up too “normal” to remember her disability. But Richard will likely remember. It’s children like her that paint his face with joy.
Not fifteen minutes after the successful surgery, he consults with a woman at the end of a long hallway outside the operating room. She is a silhouette. A figure wrapped in robes and clutching a child. A picture of pity and supplication. The child’s head is swollen, her eyes crossed, and a short burst of translated conversation reveals her condition: Hydrocephalus, further complicated with meningitis. The mother is holding out hope, and with it a small photo of the girl taken just a few months ago. She looks amazingly normal, all smiles and braids, but indistinguishable from the child fidgeting in her mother’s arms here now.
Richard does not mince his words as he asks the intern to translate. A hint of “burden” surfaces in his expression: There’s nothing we can do for her. It’s too late. This is one we can’t win. The young student-doctor looks suddenly inexperienced. In one hand she holds the precious photo, in the other, a medical textbook on bedside manners. There’s a pause before the translation, and after, Richard simply heads back to the operating room, somewhat reserved but clearly resolved to “win” some before the day is out.
I don’t see him again until after dinner at the hotel. Most of the team has eaten and gone to bed, but I stay and talk with Richard about the day. I mostly listen really. He shares about a child who died after surgery that afternoon. I can tell it bothers him. But in forty years of such effort, how many times has he found himself here? Eating a late or cold dinner, exhausted, human and of finite ability, face to face with endless need too often displayed in little tears on little faces.
I’ve flown many kinds of “missions” over the years, and among them the medical trips have always impressed me. The work is less theological and more real-world, gritty, poignant. Richard explains that on this particular trip, despite the medicines and medical care, “compassion” was probably the main thing they were bringing. Considering where we were, I could understand. In a land where the gospel is prohibited, what’s a Christian to do? Our flights north are more often than not simply missions of mercy.
With that I am reminded of the words of the prophet Micah telling us what is good and what God requires: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
I hear much about justice in this part of the world—ceaseless calls for justice, especially because there are so many poor. There are movements for justice asking for money. Governments for justice swallowing that money. Churches for justice who have forgotten the reason why. Wars for justice that have lost their way and brought the opposite. Mercy gets less press. The way I see it “justice” manifests itself mostly in political speeches and coffeehouse donations. Mercy, I think, gets personal and gets dirty. Mercy sacrifices and sometimes hurts. Watching Richard eat a late meal at the end of a long day—one more day in a life spent for the sake of the lowliest child in the lowliest place in the world—I see a man who truly loves mercy. Loves it.
And I see a man who knows what it is to walk humbly. Justice requires common sense. Mercy requires but the common grace poured out on all the world by a gracious Creator. But to walk with the Lord requires a soul surrendered to His will. This relationship, wrapped in humility, enables us to listen and learn from God. To engage a broken world—to lose some and win some—and accept the mystery of His ways. The humble walk allows us to peer into the bigger picture of God’s redemptive plan, revel in our place in it, and smile knowingly even though we weep.
Walking with Richard, through the wards and on his rounds, in the operating room and the back hallways, I glimpsed his knowing smile. One that knows God is Sovereign and God is Love. And in a land where those words could not be readily spoken, his able hands and humble smile have said it well enough.